Neutron tomography of Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes

Cocquyt, T. et al.
Science Advances

by Tiemen Cocquyt, Zhou Zhou, Jeroen Plomp, Lambert van Eijk


The technique of neutron tomography has, after 350 years, enabled a first look inside the iconic single-lens microscopes of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. Van Leeuwenhoek’s 17th-century discovery of “animalcules” marks the birth of microbiology. His skillfully self-produced microscope lenses remained unsurpassed for over 150 years. Neutron tomography now enabled us to reveal the lens types Van Leeuwenhoek used. We argue that Van Leeuwenhoek’s instruments incorporate some innovations that testify to an awareness of concurrent developments. In particular, our analysis shows that for making his best-performing microscopes, Van Leeuwenhoek deployed a lens-making procedure popularized in 1678 by Robert Hooke. This is notable, as Hooke always wanted to find the secret of Van Leeuwenhoek’s lenses, but never managed to do so. Therefore, Van Leeuwenhoek was far from the isolated scholar he is often claimed to be; rather, his secrecy about his lenses was motivated by an attempt to conceal his indebtedness to Hooke.

The article's value is its discussion of what the tomograph revealed.

The article does not provide evidence for several claims, including the "competition" with Hooke and the person responsible for asking Thomas Molyneaux to visit Leeuwenhoek. Molyneaux wrote his report to Francis Aston.